The Winter Olympics in Beijing are nearly here—but you’d barely know it based on advertising activity. Sponsors are dealing with a range of challenges, from geopolitical issues to a complicated marketing calendar. So several big brands are opting to sit out the games altogether, while others are only now ramping up marketing for an event that typically draws ad activity many weeks in advance.
Part of this is timing: Along with pandemic-related restrictions on guests and events, this Winter Olympics—which hit full stride with Friday’s Opening Ceremony on NBC—coincides with the Super Bowl season and also comes only about six months after the Tokyo Summer Olympics that were delayed due to COVID-19. That has caused a “Tokyo hangover,” says Basia Wojcik, sports VP at Omnicom-owned agency The Marketing Arm.
But a bigger issue for brands is dealing with geopolitics, namely rising tensions between China and the West. Companies are under pressure to react to China’s treatment of Uyghur people in Xinjiang, which Western countries and activists have called genocide. Uyghur people are reported to have been persecuted through methods such as detention and re-education camps, accusations that China denies. Activists have called upon the U.S. government and companies to boycott the Olympics ever since China was announced as the Winter host in 2015. This mistrust extends to cybersecurity: A range of Western countries have warned athletes of surveillance threats and U.S. athletes were advised by the FBI to use burner phones.
The situation has led some brands sponsors to remain silent; Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble are among the multinational companies that have not publicly commented on their plans, although Coke is expected to forgo a global campaign.
Consumers appear to want more: 58% of U.S. adults said they would support companies that pull out of the Games given China’s human rights record, according to a Morning Consult poll released this week. Short of ending their pricey deals with the International Olympic Committee, sponsors would still gain the support of 55% of poll respondents by “simply releasing a public statement,” according to the poll.